I first came across the Sundarbans five years ago when I was asked to
shoot for a campaign for Greenpeace International. I have since returned to
both the Indian and Bangladeshi Sundarbans on seven more occasions covering
among other things the aftermath of cyclone Sidr and cyclone Aila.
The Sundarbans is a vast area in the Ganges delta comprising a network of over 100 low-lying islands surrounded by mangrove swamps. It is the largest mangrove forest on the planet The area is home to 4.3 million people and is unique both ecologically—for the largest population of the Bengal tiger—and culturally as both Hindus and Muslims worship a deity called Bonobibi who protects the islanders from the carnivorous wildlife.
The region’s low elevation above sea level and proximity to the coast has made it vulnerable. When Cyclone Aila hit in May 2009 it destroyed many of the inhabitants’ homes and the infrastructure of the islands. The rising sea level not only ate away at the land but laid waste vast tracts of land which were covered by saline water. Land literally disappeared as a result of the rising sea. In the past 20 years four islands have been completely submerged leaving 6,000 families displaced. Reports indicate that 2.3 million people were affected by the cyclone —dead, missing or displaced. I visited the islands at different times. During every visit the residents spoke about the changing environment. Patterns of testimonies started to appear—all were saying similar things. They said that the tide was rising higher and higher during new moons and also that the cyclones were stronger than they have ever known before. Scientists believe that the warming of the oceans is creating stronger and more intense cyclones and also that the islands are sinking, which is exaggerating the rising sea level situation.
It is estimated that 30,000 inhabitants of the Sundarbans could lose their homes by 2020 as a result of the rising seawater with 15 per cent of habitable land taken by the sea. The sea surface temperature is increasing around the Sundarbans at a higher rate than it is globally, with an adverse impact on fish stocks. In the past 25 years the sea level has risen more than twice the global average. One of the islands in the Indian Sundarbans, Ghoramara is only 50 per cent of what it was 25 years ago. Two islands neighbouring Ghorarmara have disappeared completely. I have visited Gharamara on a few occasions and every time I went back I struggled to recognise the place.
After the cyclone,
people have been rebuilding their lives. They built dykes to hold the water
from invading them, and many lived on the embankments they had helped create.
Some people moved away from the coast—especially those whose fishing boats had
been swept away. Others moved to the cities but many were unable to find work.
This work aims to document life in these troubled times in the Sundarbans.
An elderly man waits for emergency relief.
A girl hangs her belongings on a tree to save it from incoming tide during food distribution.
"My name is Falebasi Mondal. I am 90 years old and I have no family. My house was damaged by cyclone Aila. I am staying there anyway because I have no other place to go. I have nothing to eat.”
Villagers building dykes to prevent inundation from the sea. (Facing Page) “My name is Dibakar Kalsa. In the last ten years I’ve lost my house many times due to the sea level rise. This year , I have already lost my house twice. ”
"My name is Bhupal Mridha. In the past, cyclones and floods came every 15 to 20 years. Now they happen every four to five years. We are living here in fear of cyclones.”
"My name is Shukdev Das. I live in Ghoramara. I lost my house due to the rising sea water. We are certain that in the near future, our island will also be under water. We don't know where we shall live."
A doctor keeps an eye on a patient at a makeshift hospital. Due to flooded dirty water cholera and other water borne diseases spread around the islands.